Norton Colliery Explosion 1912

Researched by John Lumsdon

Norton Colliery site.

As it is now. An industrial estate

In spite of its pleasant and rural setting the village of Norton-in-the-moors actually grew up around coal. From the middle Ages onwards the Lords of the Manor and other proprietors wrought extensively the top seams of coal by means of the Bell pit, Gin pit and Foot rail type of mining. Thousands of tons of coal were extracted in an attempt to satisfy the pottery kilns, it required ten tons of coal to fire one ton of clay. The nearby Iron foundries of Norton Green, Milton and Cobridge were also supplied. Incidentally, the huge chains, which supported the Menai Straits Suspension Bridge, were forged at Norton Green in 1829.

The local newspaper ran the story that an explosion took place on Saturday afternoon February 24th 1912 resulting in the death of one man and injury of another two. But for the fact that it was Saturday half-holiday, about 500 men would have been working in the pit and the results would in all probability have been disastrous. As a matter of fact only three pit fettlers (shaft inspectors and repairers) were at work at the time.

By 1.45 p.m. the pit, apart from 50 horses, was deserted. The fan was allowed to slow down and under ground fell into silence. At 3 p.m. the pit fettlers, John Mason, John Wakefield and William Lockett, got onto the wooden platform installed on the top of the cage in the up cast shaft. Each man, carrying two oil lamps, adjusted their safety harness and the signal was given to lower the cage. When they descended about 80 yards they found that the signal wire was fast and returned to the surface for a gong on which to signal until they liberated the wire.

Arriving at the Ten-Feet inset, Wakefield gave the signal to stop, then stepped into the narrow passage to inspect the pumping shaft. Mason and Lockett then continued their descent as far as the Hard mine inset, where repairs had to be done to the shaft brickwork and the expansion joint to one of the steam pipes.

As the voices carried clearly in the echoing shaft, Lockett called up to Wakefield that it would take some time to accomplish the work and that he would knock on the pipes when he was ready to ascend.

Having time on his hands Wakefield went through the separation doors and into the pumping shaft to signal to Louis Meadowcroft, the pump attendant, who was in charge of the winding gears in the pump shaft. In this way he kept in touch with the surface.

It was now 3.30 p.m. Suddenly, and without warning the shaft was shattered by a thunderous roar from below, Wakefield was bowled over and sent rolling through the separation doors and into the pump shaft. He collapsed and remembered no more.

The shock wave in the down cast shaft damaged the two cages, hurling the heavy steel plates, at the shaft top, into the headgears and scattered debris over a wide area. Roofs, walls and windows of the lamp house and offices were damaged. Meanwhile, Wakefield recovered, he was dazed and suffering from chokedamp. Fortunately Lou Meadowcroft was still at the top of the pump shaft and heard Wakefield,s knocking on the pipes. The water-bucket was lowered immediately, into which the fettler managed to crawl and was wound up to the surface. "Tell the engine man to wind up the cage" he gasped, "Mason and Lockett must still be on the cage platform." Sam hesitated, as it was against the regulations to move the cage with out a signal. But he had no other choice, so he set the winding-engine in motion.

The cage slowly surfaced with its pathetic cargo. Lockett was dead; his head had protruded beyond the edge of the platform and struck the framework at the shaft top. Mason was unconscious.

Later Mason said it was like a steam pipe bursting below, followed by a continual roar and a gust of wind, which extinguished all the lights. He experienced difficulty in breathing and fell upon the cage. Lockett clung to the cage for an instant and then fell across Mason and both men became unconscious.

A call was sent to the North Staffs Rescue Station and within 23 minutes they arrived at the scene and found that the explosion had been extremely violent. They alerted the surrounding collieries and soon colliery officials, engineers, medical units, highly trained colliery rescue brigades and police were on their way to Norton colliery.

The boom of the explosion had been heard far and wide. People rushed out of their houses and into the streets. Volumes of thick black smoke, soot and dust were coiling upwards and into the sky. Rescue teams from Chatterley Whitfield, Berry hill, Kidsgrove and Norton, led by their captains, J. Brindley, Tom lowe, A Lovatt and another Tom Lowe were eager to descend the shaft, despite the smoke and danger.

At 7 p.m. Mr. Hugh Johnstone, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines, arrived with two other inspectors, Mr. W. Wynne and Mr. W. Saint. It was the opinion of the mining engineers who saw the devastation, that it was the most violent explosion that had taken place in any colliery in the country. Had it happened a few hours earlier the 500 men and boys who had been working there that morning would not have survived.

Adjusting their oxygen-breathing apparatus, the inspector and his platoon made the nerve-racking descent of the smoke-filled shaft, 380 yards deep.
Arriving in the pit bottom they headed into the nearby stables where they found the horses dead in their stalls, the deadly carbon monoxide had snuffed out their lives, 50 in total.

Mr. Johnstone found the downcast pit bottom more horrifying than he had anticipated. Full tubs of coal had been blown across the pit bottom in many cases the bogies cut off as with a huge knife, and thrown some fifty yards. The brick built arches, 6 feet thick were blown out, a large haulage engine and several new centrifugal pumps had been smashed to pieces. The separation doors were so broken up and damaged that no piece of wood could be found, that was larger than a mans finger.
The empty tubs were battered in all sorts of fantastic shapes that they were hardly recognisable as tubs. To make matters worse for the recovery men the water began to rise in the pit bottom because the pumps had been smashed.

It was decided to descend by way of the up cast shaft. Norton No.1 team, captained by Mr. A. Lovatt, descended the pit. They were told to make a survey of the pit bottom and come up within an hour. This they did and the captain made an excellent, clear, and concise report of the conditions, despite frequently meeting fresh dangers and difficulties, most of the time being knee deep in water.

This report enabled the officials to determine the origin of the explosion, which, having begun in the Coxshead seam, with a fire-ball searing up a 1 in 3 dip and about 800 yards in length hitting the shaft bottom with vicious savagery; any haulage lads, who would normally have been there, would have been blown to pieces. It was certain that a fire was burning in one of the goafs of this seam.

Mr. Johnstone and the other inspectors, who had had experience of other explosions, decided with the rest of the group, that intense heat, the build up of noxious gases, the possibility of a further explosion and the rumblings of more roof falls precluded further investigation. They ordered the fan to be stopped; the mine must be sealed off hermetically for at least 48 hours.

The sealing consisted of a wooden platform covered with canvas over which loads of sand were piled up to make the shafts air-tight. A few small tubes fitted with plugs were fixed in for the purpose of taking samples of air, temperature and pressure of air. By this time crowds around the colliery had increased. The site of the tomb-like mounds of sand and their dreadful implications of what might have been. The prospect of unemployment and no wages were not inductive to pleasure.

Night fell on Norton colliery, a miserable night. Men still stood around discussing the day's disaster, but little by little they all dispersed homeward.
It remained sealed till 2nd March when the down cast shaft was re-opened. After sealing off the dips the fan was started on 9th March.

Permanent stoppings were erected in No.2 South level district. The area on the inbye side of these stoppings was not explored and the actual point of origin of the explosion was therefore not discovered.

A week later, most of the rescue brigades in the district were summoned, and the recovery of the pit was commenced.

Before long the shopkeepers were obliged to conduct their business on a "cash only" basis. Shops in Smallthorne, Bradeley, Norton and elsewhere displayed the notice: "Please don't ask for credit. It is dead. Bad times have killed it." Relief centres were set up, soup kitchens and other means of subsistence were doing their best to ease the extreme cases.

Meanwhile repair work was in full swing underground. Water was cleared out of the pit. The bottom was put into temporary repair so that the cage could be lowered to the bottom level. The pace of the repair work was slow. Replacing ventilation doors, rebuilding brick stoppings, which were reduced to rubble by the force of the explosion, had to be done by men wearing oxygen-breathing apparatus.

All the pit ponies, 50 in number, were dead and had to be rolled into wagons to be taken out of the pit and thence to Beeston's knacker yard at the junction of Bellerton Lane and Leek New-road, where Joe Ball was sadly searching for his pony, Major.

The recovery continued for 120 days by teams working in the irrespirable atmosphere of two-hour shifts. Ventilation was restored, then men were able to go down the pit without breathing apparatus, and permanent repairs were put in hand. In a few weeks coal was being drawn from the Holly Lane and Hard Mine seams. Mr. Johnstone said the whole operations were organised and carried out in a manner, which reflected the greatest credit upon the officials and workmen alike.